A personal journey: my search for part of my roots (Part 1)

Versión en Espanñol: Un viaje personal: mi búsqueda por parte de mis raíces (I Parte)


As I began to write these notes, news came that two mapuche children had been to a legal procedure handcuffed. It is, of course, indignant. I am outraged. But then, this is just the latest episode in a history of violence.

The mapuche people live in southern Chile and Argentina. Historically, the maximum extent of territory they inhabited began from Bahía Blanca, in the Atlantic coast, reaching the Pacific coast of Chile. Before that, when the spaniards arrived, their language was spoken from Coquimbo to Chiloé, that is, approximately 1500 kms. Now, however, the mapuche territory is restricted to reducciones1 which sprinkle an area that is like a relic of its former self.

Yet, they live there. And, while their language erodes fast with the penetration of spanish, chilean culture, television, internet and the inherent prestige of the official tongue, the mapuche language still exists, is spoken and attempts are being made to revive it in areas where it was lost, as in Santiago.

Because, as weird as it seems, in Santiago the mapuche language was lost not once, but twice. It was lost when the mapuche people of the Santiago valley either died out or were culturally assimilated, and it was lost again in the twentieth century, when large numbers of people began moving from the fields to the cities, in particular to the capital city. Here, many mapuche arrived, escaping from poverty. But they did not teach their children their language. The children heard it, of course, and many were somewhat proficient at it, but they would not speak mapuche to their children, in turn. And they lost it. They mostly lost it. Most did not care, but some, a few, were left clinging. And they befriended some older people, those who were younger than their grandparents, but had excellent command of the intricacies of the language and, most importantly, witnessed the loss of it. And they began to teach it. Some keep doing it.

The younger generation has learned some mapuche. Why? Out of love for their language, for their culture, for their ancestors. But, and this is completely a personal opinion, many people are searching for an identity that they themselves create. What I mean by that is that many people create a mapuche identity that some older mapuche would not necessarily think of as mapuche. Many younger people are not sufficiently informed, have not learned enough about their culture and are set to recreate it.

An example of that: some mapuche organizations are focused on doing things. And that’s OK, that’s a good thing. But when you do too many things and your main focus becomes that, you lose. You lose what the mapuche call the ngutram, the conversation, the talking in which you really listen to your comrade, your brother, your peñi. Some organizations become almost an enterprise, an industry dedicated to participate in meetings, celebrate —publicly— some mapuche holidays, sell some merchandising at folklore stands and sometimes emit a feeble cry for mapuche freedom. That happens. It happened to me.

You lose. There is much more richness in the mapuche culture and the mapuche people when you go as close as possible to the source. The pentukun, the ngutram, these ritualized forms of communication rest upon some rock solid foundations: the most important aspect of mapuche culture is that you must become a che, a person. And you do that by way of respect, listening, having clean thoughts, caring about others, being part of nature and many other aspects of the same idea. You must communicate with your kin, you must hear and be heard. And you’re just a tiny freckle of nature. Ask for its help to cure your illness, be grateful for what it gives to you.

  1. Lof, in mapudungun. 

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